On a visit to Russell Kirk’s country home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan last summer, I explored the grounds of his property — the sprawling lawns under sycamore trees he planted for each of his daughters, the wood-paneled library full of his favorite books, the Italianate house decorated with swords, sacred images, and oriental carpets. Surrounded by these artifacts, I felt I was getting to know him and given insight into his greatest loves — for God and his family, for his country and Hillsdale College.
Kirk died more than two decades ago, but he remains a familiar name around Hillsdale. He is a sort of grandfather to the college, for he knew our conservative heroes personally and told their stories. Through his writing, he communicated the nature of true conservatism, that “the conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character — with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul.” Even after his death, he continues to guide the way that we think about the purpose of conservative character and liberal education.
Though we laud Kirk’s work, we have yet to honor him in the way we have honored others. Let’s make him the next statue on the Liberty Walk.
Kirk embodied the spirit of Hillsdale, integrating the principles of the Western tradition into a way of life — the life of the gentleman or, to quote him, “the humane man.” Between earning his master’s degree at Duke and his doctor of letters at the University of St. Andrews, Kirk served in World War II, lamenting the United States’ devastating decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He loved to take long, quiet walks through the moors of Scotland and the sandy roads near Piety Hill. He helped to found the conservative journal Modern Age, to which he contributed for much of his life, and later, was named a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Kirk is well known for his book “The Conservative Mind” that traces the conservative tradition from Edmund Burke to George Santayana.
He thought conservatives should be leaders, but know their roles as members of a tradition and a community to which they owe their gratitude and love. Kirk and his wife Annette were known for their hospitality, entertaining writers, artists, hobos, and refugees. Hillsdale Professor of Economics Ivan Pongracic grew up at Piety Hill after Kirk took in he and his father, an academic, who had fled from Yugoslavia.
Kirk fostered relationships with thinkers like Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley Jr., Flannery O’Connor, and T.S. Eliot — the conservative pilgrims of business, politics, and academia. Kirk shared his experience in the conservative movement with Hillsdale, eventually teaching one course each year as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities. He no doubt took evening strolls down Half Moon Road or perhaps through the grassy cemetery grounds, where he would have found great fodder for his famous ghost stories.
After his death, his wife helped establish the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale and donated Kirk’s library to the college, ensuring an ongoing relationship between the college and the cultural renewal project at Piety Hill. Hillsdale’s current Russell Kirk Chair, Professor of History Bradley Birzer, recently published a biography on the life of Russell Kirk.
Russell Kirk proved a dear friend to the college — a model of the imaginative conservative — the virtuous, intelligent, and free man, conscious of tradition and eloquent in modernity. He is the last man on earth who would hope for a statue of himself to be erected on Hillsdale’s campus, but the humblest men are often the most deserving of honor.